Bank of America's Charles Bowman: 'There's an attitude shift around here'

Apr 11, 2013

This article originally appeared in the April 11 online edition of the Charlotte Business Journal. Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Business Journal.

Charles Bowman is a banker at Bank of America. At least that's what we're told. It's on his LinkedIn page and his business card — both say he's the Charlotte market president, in charge of the bank's business in North Carolina.

But when I spent an hour with him this week on the 53rd floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center, he talked a lot about listening, attitudes, humanity and relationships.

He did mention shareholder value and "financial solutions advisers," which is bank-speak for the person in a branch who can set up your IRA. But no mention of regulatory burden, remote deposit capture or interest margins, common themes for most bankers these days.

BofA and Bowman will tell you the Charlotte-based bank (NYSE:BAC) and its bankers have turned over a new leaf. The new conversation topics are the result of some soul-searching, some balance sheet repair and a newfound desire to help customers.

A skeptic will tell you it's all part of a well-financed and well-orchestrated new branding campaign that launched this week, designed to change the subject on bailouts, foreclosures and debit card fees.

Decide for yourself. Here are the highlights of my conversation with Bowman, edited for brevity and clarity.

Your new slogan is about being connected. How well is the company connected right now?

Better than it has been. We’re still improving. This marketing campaign isn’t about saying, ‘We’re there.’ It’s saying where we’re going. I call it a pivot point. We’re more externally focused. We’re listening to clients better. We’re much less about what’s going on inside. Most people don’t care how you’re organized, but we did have to get organized. In this market people have settled down a little bit more. There’s less uncertainty. The economy is starting to improve. We reflect what’s going on in the rest of the world. We’re leaner. We’re more efficient. We’ve gotten rid of non-core assets.

Since I’ve known Brian (Moynihan), he’s been very consistent about serving customers and clients from beginning to end and even beyond with the trusts people leave behind. He’s focused us on serving people, businesses and institutional investors. Everything we do is around those three customer bases.

Are we there yet? We’re not perfect. I’m giving you examples of what’s beginning to happen. We’re much more optimistic and self-confident. There’s a little more celebration of the successes. I wouldn’t have those examples two years ago.

A family portrait through the years is the subject for one of your new ads. When my wife saw it, she said it didn’t feel like a bank. Is that what you were going for?

I think its not about pushing a product. That’s part of what you’re hearing. It’s about defining a need. The other part of the campaign is we know we’re not the center of your life. It’s about people. You’ve got two kids now, so you’re thinking about saving for college and creating a budget that works. So how do we respond to that, as opposed to here’s five more credit cards. It’s less about us — we have to create value for shareholders — but we have to find value for customers, too.

Over the last five years, a lot of people have been hurt though a mortgage issue or a losing a line of credit for their business. How do you repair those relationships?

A lot of what we’ve done speaks for itself. We’ve modified a million and a half mortgages. We’ve forgiven principal. Checks are going out on Friday (related to a multi-billion legal settlement with the government). We’re putting a lot of that behind us.

If you’re a customer of ours, there’s probably already some kind of connection. You’ll stay with us because we figured out another way to connect with you. It may be through a banking center. This is my answer to how we do it: It may be through an ATM that lets you talk to a live person. Or you go downstairs and you see that banking center has a mortgage banker, a financial solutions provider and a small business banker. That’s making things more human. If you have a special need, they’ll be able to meet that need because they’re experts. It’s really one at a time. I don’t want to sound hokey, but I do believe we do it one at a time.

There’s an attitude shift around here. We call it a cultural change. Brian actually uses this example: A son was taking his 97-year-old mother around to different banking centers and couldn’t get anyone to take care of them. But they finally landed at one of our banking centers and somebody — who we joke probably broke a bunch of rules — came out to the car to do the transaction with a 97-year-old customer who needed help. I think that’s the different mindset. People are excited about having that opportunity.

What has been the catalyst for that attitude change?

It’s been going on for a while in a quieter way. We’re stronger. We have a stronger capital base. We have stronger liquidity. So we have the platform.

But the current catalyst is some of the excitement around the rollout of the brand. Friday we had a meeting and we invited all employees inside the 277 loop to come to an auditorium. So before the external world saw it, we let our employees see what would roll out over the weekend. There was genuine excitement there. There were concerns too. People worried that campaigns have a beginning and an end. Well, it’s not really about the ads. There was some real genuine discussion about how we need to demonstrate what the ads are about. We will get better everyday in every interaction. We’re not there yet. It’s not about the ads, it’s about all of us and why we come to work.

Most of the people at the bank want to do positive things for people. The negative images don’t always reflect the rank-and-file here. Most of our employees want to serve customers and are proud of what they do. One banker told me they feel like they can now go to a dinner party or a cocktail party and hold their head up. That’s a different feel.

Its the first time in a long time that we’ve really truly talked about serving customers and clients and their financial needs. It’s not as much about us as it is about looking outward or looking forward and being more responsive. We’ve come a long, long ways, but we still have a ways to go. It’s not a victory celebration.

How has morale been affected by the last five years?

People here are more personally affected by negative reactions to banks than anyone ever knows.

So it bothers them?

Yeah. I’m going to give you the positive side. Last year, a lot of negative press is going on. We had an event at the food bank with Cam Newton. And we were out there packing boxes of food for kids. It was fun to do and we were really fortunate. The next day there was an article and you saw the picture of the red volunteer shirts. And people at work said, ‘That’s awesome.’ It wasn’t because of Cam Newton. It was because we were doing something positive and productive. That’s how I know. Normally, people don’t always speak to me on the elevator. But the fact that their heads were up and their shoulders were back a little more. They’re energized by those kind of happenings.

There’s a quiet optimism. The band’s not playing, but there’s that sense of looking ahead. That really is a difference. Quit looking over our shoulder. We’ve got people to help. Let’s go do that. We still have to get more efficient, and we’re doing that. But there’s a quiet optimism that we’re beginning to turn.

You’ve been the market president in Charlotte for five years. How has your role changed?

I’m not trying to play off all our ads, but I really am the connector. Historically, my job was more a face to the community. Today its more about how to integrate businesses and deliver them to the community. So I’m the deliverer internally and externally. We’re convening every month to look at what we’re doing, what the client needs, what we could do differently and how to make that real.

I came into this role at the end of 2007. You gotta remember what was happening. The economy was still chugging along and this job was about being a face to the community.

I’m a reflection of what happened in the company. In 2008 you had Bank of America and Merrill. That’s when the recession fell into the depths. In 2009, ‘10 and ‘11 we all had our heads down trying to get through huge challenges.

Today, we’re balancing community impact and business integration. This role has evolved dramatically, from representing the bank at events and presenting checks to now more about how do we deliver the bank in all aspects. This role will continue to evolve. I’m bringing people together. A lot of people don’t know all the capabilities we have. Through the bank’s platform, we can connect to almost anything in the world, whether its moving money internationally, dealing with small businesses locally or serving an individual. I’m also an educator, connecting what’s going on in the mortgage world to what’s going on in the credit card world to what’s going on with Merrill Lynch.

Is the role of market president different in Charlotte since the headquarters are here?

It is different. In many ways it makes the role better. You have other senior executives here and a lot of people engaged in the community.

I’m sort of the quarterback of how it all works. It is a little like being the conductor of an orchestra. I don’t run any lines of business — I don’t play those instruments — but I’m accountable to make sure they get connected with each other.

In Charlotte, we are the headquarters city, we have a lot of history here, we have a lot of people engaged. Look up and down this street (Tryon) and you can see how we’ve been involved in almost everything. But that makes it more interesting actually. It can be challenging at times because of the complexity. I’m trying to keep senior management informed and motivate volunteers. It’s a fun an interesting job.

All the BofA market presidents have been directed by Brian Moynihan to boost revenue. How do you make that happen?

First of all, we protect the brand. Make sure we’re investing the right way in the community so people know when our name is behind something there’s quality behind it.

We’re also in a commodity business where every relationship matters. So my comments about making sure the banking centers work with the investment advisers and the commercial bankers, the only way you really grow revenue is to really integrate those services. My plan in this market is to strike the balance between community impact and business integration. That’s how we’ll grow revenue. We have to make sure as Bank of America, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust are coming together in the best way to deliver for our clients. I get feedback from people who say they have all these accounts and we don’t know them. OK, how do I get to know them better — bring some humanity and relationship into that.

Adam O'Daniel covers banking, entrepreneurs and technology for the Charlotte Business Journal.

Open Location
Open How we're involved